Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, Idema called a friend, National Geographic television producer Gary Scurka, asking him if he wanted to document some humanitarian work he was planning in Afghanistan. Things started going wrong almost from the start of the project. In October 2001, Scurka and Idema set off for Afghanistan via Uzbekistan, where they were detained for not having visas. Scurka recalled that Idema worked his contacts in the U.S. government and "American officials got us out of detention." The pair then traveled to neighboring Tajikistan, where they hooked up with thirty-two-year-old cameraman and director Neil Barrett, a laid-back Englishman whose first impressions of Idema weren't favorable. "This is the guy who is going to take us into Afghanistan?" Barrett remembered thinking. He added, "One of his first comments to me was: Did I have an exit strategy? And I'm thinking, 'I have walked into a fucking movie.'"
Idema and the National Geographic team crossed the Tajik border into northern Afghanistan, where they were planning to make a documentary about Ed Artis, a fifty-six-year-old Californian who runs a private charity, Knights-bridge International, which specializes in delivering relief to some of the world's most dangerous places. Artis quickly came to loathe Idema. Even though Idema was ostensibly there to deliver humanitarian supplies to the Afghans, Artis said Idema had another agenda: to provide Northern Alliance fighters with military supplies, which jeopardized Artis' efforts to deliver desperately needed aid to thousands of Afghan civilians. "He's the dumbest fuck I've ever met," said Artis. (Idema and Artis are now tied up in litigation.)
On the fourth day of filming, Barrett and Scurka were near the front lines between the Northern Alliance and Taliban positions on a hill that began taking incoming Taliban fire. Scurka recalled that he heard "the crack of artillery, and a telltale whistle got very noticeable. Then the shell hit. For a split second I thought my leg was blown off."
Scurka was evacuated back to the United States, which put an end to Idema's role in the documentary project since Artis refused to be part of any film that involved him. And so Idema's first foray into Afghanistan ended up being a fiasco, but even his detractors will concede that Idema is not a man who is easily deterred. Several weeks later, in December 2001, Idema showed up at the battle of Tora Bora in eastern Afghanistan, where bin Laden and hundreds of other members of Al Qaeda were holed up in mountain hideouts. It was at Tora Bora that Idema began making a number of contacts with journalists, who were pleasantly surprised to find a Special Forces-type dude who would actually talk to the media.
But it was Idema's longstanding relationship with Robin Moore, the author of titles ranging from The Green Berets to The French Connection, which would burnish his image as an authority on the Afghan war. Moore's 2003 best-seller, The Hunt for bin Laden, described by the Washington Post as "fast-paced and immensely entertaining," portrayed Idema as he sees himself: an American icon.
Idema, who had arrived in Afghanistan calling himself Keith and was now going by Jack, was both an important source for the book and provided many of the photographs used to illustrate it, including his photo on the cover. In the book's acknowledgments, Moore even thanks "an anonymous Green Beret" for "day-and-night rewrites in the final months." The anonymous Green Beret is, of course, Idema.
In one passage, as the war against the Taliban is winding down in the winter of 2001, Idema is back at his favorite spot, the rooftop of Kabul's Mustafa hotel, which he has christened "Jack's Tora Bora Cafe." In a sentimental mood, fortified by vodka, Idema thinks back over the war:
"God I hate it when a war ends."... His teary eyes glassed over from the booze... In January, Jack uncovered an Al Qaeda plot to kill President Clinton. In March, standing in the middle of a Kabul street armed with a Russian assault rifle and 600 rounds of ammunition, Jack held off Islamic fundamentalists for four hours as they tried to take eighteen foreign citizens hostage.
Despite the fact that Idema said all this is true, there are no independent news accounts that support these vivid exploits. But one scrape that Idema is known to have been a part of is missing from Moore's book. Here is how Tod Robberson, of the Dallas Morning News, described it in his newspaper: "This reporter was five feet away from Mr. Idema on April 20, 2002, when he drew a pistol during an argument and fired a bullet that went through a couch and lodged in a wall behind me ... missing my heart by about eight inches." When I asked Idema whether he had indeed shot in Robberson's direction, he didn't deny it, insisting that, "He wasn't even close. Trust me, he was on the other side of the room." Another American journalist, who was present at the incident, confirmed the details of Robberson's account.
Idema's relations with other members of the media would prove to be more congenial and, occasionally, lucrative. He was the source for hours of Al Qaeda videotapes purportedly discovered by the Northern Alliance, the highlights of which were broadcast by 60 Minutes II in January 2002. The 60 Minutes II story showed Arabs performing paramilitary training in the small Afghan town of Mir Bacha Kot and also featured Idema as an expert on-camera commentator. "I didn't know what to make of him," said Dan Rather, the correspondent on the story. "But I rather liked him... He's an adventurer, but an adventurer with a conscience."
Last October, New York magazine raised the possibility that the Al Qaeda videotapes Idema supplied to 60 Minutes II were faked, a seemingly plausible scenario given Idema's previous fraud conviction. But when I visited the town of Mir Bacha Kot, about a half-hour north of Kabul, Deputy Police Chief Mohammed Araf told me that Arabs had indeed used the town as a military base under the Taliban, and the buildings in Mir Bacha Kot match those on the Idema supplied tapes. A journalist from a leading U.S. media organization who evaluated the tapes told me he had no doubt they were authentic but passed on them only because Idema was demanding tens of thousands of dollars for them.
In Afghanistan, Idema was finally doing the things he had always claimed to be doing in Central America during the 1980s: accompanying local guerrilla forces into battle in an exotic land, just like John Wayne in The Green Berets. For much of the year following the 9/11 attacks, he traveled the length and breadth of Afghanistan, establishing ties with military commanders in the Northern Alliance. In March 2002, Susan Glasser, a reporter for the Washington Post, met with Idema at his house in Kabul. Operation Anaconda was then under way in central-eastern Afghanistan, in which several hundred American soldiers and their Afghan allies were trying to encircle Al Qaeda and Taliban forces dug into mountain redoubts. Glasser said Idema showed her an Suv loaded with boxes of what he said were medical supplies that he was going to deliver to the Afghan forces. The supplies were all marked Fort Bragg, the North Carolina headquarters of Special Forces, seeming to suggest that Idema still had some kind of tie to the Green Berets.
In summer 2002, Idema returned to the States after his mother died unexpectedly, Viktoria Running Wolf remembered her husband wasn't happy to be leaving Afghanistan. "He had found a new niche in life and it showed on his face," she said. "He was the most bitter human being when he came home that I have ever met."
Idema began planning his return to Afghanistan during the winter of 2003. His old Afghan sources had tipped him off to active terrorist cells in Kabul. On this trip, Idema would be accompanied by Ed Caraballo, a forty-three-year-old director and cameraman from the Bronx, who got his start directing TV-Cbgb, a cable show about the East Village punk scene in the early Eighties, and who later went on to establish a solid career in the news business. CNN anchor Anderson Cooper told me that when he was a correspondent at ABC News in the late Nineties, "I continually hired Ed because he was the best camera man that I ever worked with."
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